Just a year after sharp increases in water and sewer rates, Baltimore City officials say they will have to raise utility rates again next year to pay for shoring up a sewer system so dilapidated it has drawn intense scrutiny from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department.
Faced with the threat of a lawsuit and huge fines, the city has been negotiating for more than a year with federal and state officials on a consent decree that will lay out what costly repairs the city will make to its aging sewer system, which has been troubled by overflows that have dumped millions of gallons of raw sewage into tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay.
"We are sitting at the table now with the Justice Department and the EPA on a consent decree," city Public Works Director George L. Winfield told the City Council at a budget hearing last week. "As a result of that, I'm sure there will be some additional costs that will have to be paid by the consumer."
It's not clear what the increase will be, but it will come on top of last year's 19 percent rise in the water rate and 15 percent increase in the sewer rate. That amounted to an estimated $66 annual increase on average for city residents. Last year's rise was the third in five years.
The average family of four now pays a water and sewer bill of about $115 a quarter, according to city officials. Any further changes must wait until next year, because the city revisits rates only every other year.
The prospect of an increase in the city means Baltimore County residents might also have to pay more, since the city shares the cost of maintaining the sewer system with the county.
Howard County users could also be indirectly affected.
The news comes at a time when Mayor Martin O'Malley is pushing a 20 percent local income tax increase to pay for other basic city services, including trash collection and a significantly beefed-up Police Department.
Leaks, spills, overflows
But the income tax doesn't pay for utility projects, and the city needs to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on improvements that federal officials say are needed for a century-old sewer system afflicted by leaks, spills and overflow problems.
Those problems became more publicly apparent with two major spills last summer.
In late July, city officials diverted 4.4 million gallons of untreated sewage into the Jones Falls to keep it from flowing down streets or backing up into homes, after 600,000 gallons had already overflowed onto East Baltimore streets.
And in early September, a broken valve at a Southeast Baltimore pumping station sent 10.3 million gallons of sewage into Colgate Creek.
The state Department of the Environment and the EPA were raising questions about pollution caused by deteriorating sewage pipes in early 2000, "and then the spills happened and that really got it out there," said a former state official involved in the Baltimore consent decree negotiations.
Baltimore is one of many cities nationwide, including some in Maryland, that are being pressured by regulators to make costly repairs to their sewer systems after decades of decay.
Winfield declined to elaborate in an interview about his brief remarks to the City Council, saying through a spokesman that he couldn't comment because of the continuing consent-decree negotiations.
Major work involved
But a series of interviews in recent months with public works staffers and federal officials portray a city that is being asked by federal and state officials to refurbish and rebuild its sewer system more ambitiously - and more quickly - than the city had planned.
"They have to pursue a massive program of sewer rehabilitation and replacement to deal with these problems," said Michael Cook, director of the EPA's office of wastewater management. "They should be planning and setting priorities based on that."
The consent-decree negotations are the result of more than a year of investigation by the EPA and Justice Department. Federal officials say the agencies' probe has focused on problems in sewage pipes and pumping stations, not on the sewage treatment plants or the water supply.
The city is operating its Ashburton Water Filtration Plant and Patapsco Waste Water Treatment Plant under the terms of a 1999 consent decree, which mandated $2.5 million in improvements and included a $1 million fine, one of the largest imposed on a municipality under the federal Clean Water Act.
Detailed plan expected
One federal official said the current consent-decree negotiations - which could be completed by the end of summer - should result in a detailed, comprehensive plan to correct all of the sewer system's problems, including inadequate capacity in some areas, sewage overflows caused by the failure of old or poorly maintained equipment, and chronic leaks from aged, crumbling pipes.
The federal agencies recognize the city's financial problems, and they're seeking a timetable that gets the work done as quickly as possible without robbing the city of the ability to provide other basic services such as crime-fighting, the official said.
Public works officials said the city has been working on sewage system upgrades since the 1970s, and conducted a comprehensive study of needed repairs in the 1990s.
The department has nearly $200 million in projects planned for the sewer system overhaul, though none are due to begin construction until the fall of 2002, said city public works spokesman Kurt L. Kocher.
Fix sewers or pay fines
Part of the reason the overhaul isn't moving faster is money. For years, city public works officials have taken pride in keeping utility rates low. Now, as Winfield's comments to the council last week indicated, the consent-decree negotiations will force an increase in rates to pay for what many say are long-overdue improvements.
If the negotiators fail to reach an agreement, the federal government could file a lawsuit charging the Department of Public Works with multiple violations of the Clean Water Act, including separate charges for each spill or leak into waterways.
The act, one of the country's most powerful anti-pollution measures, provides for penalties of up to $27,500 per day per violation, though the courts seldom assess the maximum penalty.
Federal officials declined to say how large a fine the Department of Public Works might face. The negotiations so far have focused on solving the sewerage problems, not on assessing fines, one official said.
Several other Eastern cities, including Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Toledo and Miami, have faced similar enforcement actions as the EPA attempts to speed up repairs of the nation's aging sewer pipes. Typically the agency asks a court to impose heavy fines only as a last resort.
Sun staff writer M. Dion Thompson contributed to this article.